By Sandi Durell
A very adorable and sexy N’Kenge, bedecked in a skintight red gown with matching boa, made a one night only appearance at the Two E Lounge of The Pierre Hotel. The purpose was to introduce her new persona to her audience as she will soon be appearing Off Broadway as Dorothy Dandridge the ‘Hollywood’s Sepia Goddess,’ produced by Richard Bell (Bubbling Brown Sugar). You may better recall N’Kenge as Mary Wells in Motown: The Musical.
It’s hard to fathom where all that power and vocal pyrotechnics come from as she’s as big as a minute. But she’s one hot mama opening with “(I Got) Two Lovers,” by Smokey Robinson, one of Mary Wells’ big hits, following with “My Guy” – slow and bluesy. She has the voice, the looks and the presence of a star.
N’Kenge has sung all over the world in concerts and solo club acts, has quite a resume on and Off Broadway, in opera, TV and film sharing many a story about her life and career; how she came to audition for Motown Records as a teen and was offered a recording contract but mother said “no,” keeping her little girl in New York and in school at the High School of Performing Arts and on to Julliard where N’Kenge received a Masters Degree.
The evening proceeded with “Poor Sweet Baby, “ “I Got Love” (for her daughter) as her powerful voice echoed throughout the small intimate space. The majority of the songs reverberated with high belted notes and it wasn’t until “One For My Baby” that a peaceful, quiet intimacy showed off her keen story-telling abilities, filled with lots of pathos.
She then teased the audience with a peek into her new show about Dorothy Dandridge, with book, music and lyrics by Robert Mitchell. Dandridge was the first African American nominated for an Academy Award for Carmen Jonesin 1954 and a Golden Globe for her role in Porgy and Bess. She lived a life of great turmoil. N’Kenge offered a dramatic “That’s Love” (from Carmen Jones) and closed the show with Cole Porter’s “Ridin’ High,” a most appropriate ending.
Singing in a small intimate cabaret space is akin to inviting an audience into your own living room. It requires more nuanced levels of vocal power and it’s not always easy to pull back a big voice like N’Kenge luckily possesses. It is a voice that resonates spectacularly and belongs on a theater stage or in concert halls.
She was accompanied by Josh Knight on piano.
Photo: Neal Bennington
TwoE@tajhotels.com Reservations: 212 940-8113 for future shows